We loved getting back into Ellinburg, getting back into the Pious Men, and chatting with Peter McLean about his books and this magnificent story he’s building. Peter has built a brilliant world based around these ex-soldiers shoved back into a society that has almost tried to move on without them and now has to deal with their PTSD, their violence, their ingrained horror, and their history. If that sounds a lot like the people brought back from every war we’ve read about in the 20th century (and probably every century before that), then you’d be bang on. And that’s one of the many reasons each book in this series lands like a 500-page hammer blow.
Priest of Gallows
Book 3 of The War for the Rose Throne
One murder can change the fate of a nation.
I had been governor of Ellinburg for less than four months when it happened. It was a warm spring evening, and I was relaxing in the private drawing room of the governor’s hall, a glass of brandy in my hand and a book open in my lap. Billy and Mina were sitting under the window together, playing some game of cat’s cradle between them. I watched them over my glass, watched the entwining of the cords between their fingers, and I could see in the looks they shared with each other just how fierce their young love was. I knew how strongly Billy felt for her.
We had almost come to blood over it back in the winter, after all. After I had crushed the strike at the factory, Mina had come to me herself to confess what she had done. That was brave of her, I’d had to allow, but it didn’t change the facts of the thing. I remembered how the rebellious workers had known we were coming when they shouldn’t have done, and how Old Kurt hadn’t been there when he should have been. He had known we were coming because someone had told him, and that someone was Mina.
Mina, who was a cunning woman even Billy looked up to.
She’s very strong.
Mina, who couldn’t do magic without spewing obscenities that would have curled the hair of the lowest conscript soldier.
Mina, who Old Kurt had once taken in when she was a little orphan girl on the unforgiving streets of Ellinburg.
That was a betrayal, and I took it ill.
Very ill indeed.
‘Don’t kill her, Papa,’ Billy had begged me, in the end. ‘Please, please don’t kill her.’
‘She betrayed us,’ I said.
The cold fury Ailsa had left me with was still upon me in those weeks, and I couldn’t find it in myself to feel understanding or mercy.
Not for anyone.
Billy got a hard look about him then, and it came to me through my icy rage that perhaps I recognised that look. Perhaps it wasn’t so very different from how I had looked at my own da, the night I killed him.
‘You won’t kill her,’ Billy said, in that way he had when he knew a thing was so. ‘You won’t, because I won’t let you.’
There was something in his over-bright eyes, something that told me he truly meant it. Billy the Boy was strong in the cunning, if still not quite so strong as Mina herself, and he was either a seer of Our Lady or possessed by some devil out of Hell. No one, neither cunning man nor priest, was really sure which.
Sometimes he gave me the fear, and I’ve no shame in admitting that. There are few men in this world who I would fear to face with swords, but I fear the cunning. I fear what I can’t see, what I can’t fight – disease, and magic, but not men. And yet that wasn’t what stayed my hand.
At the time it had been barely four weeks since Ailsa had left us both and returned to Dannsburg. Billy had lost his ma, and I knew that had hit him hard. Was I really going to take his woman away from him too, betrayal or not? Beside that, Mina had saved my life at the sit- down with Bloodhands, her and Jochan. I had told myself then that I wouldn’t forget that, and I hadn’t.
I spent a long night thinking on it, and perhaps I even prayed on it too. Priest I may be, among other things, but I’ll confess that I don’t pray often. Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows doesn’t answer prayers, after all, but perhaps that night she heard one.
I spared Mina’s life, and I found it deep inside me to forgive her too. Family is important, after all, and I understood that Old Kurt had been like family to her. By the end of a long, sleepless night I understood why she had done it. I loved Billy as my own son, although he wasn’t, and since Ailsa had deserted me he was all I really had left. My aunt was distant, my brother mad, and Bloody Anne was so busy running the Pious Men and I the city that we hardly saw each other any more. I wasn’t going to lose my son too, and if forgiving Mina was the price of that then so be it.
Watching them now, I was glad I had.
I’m a harsh man, I know that, but I like to think I’m a fair one.
‘I win,’ Mina said, although I couldn’t make head nor tail of their game.
Billy laughed and leaned forward to kiss her, and I turned back to the book in my hand. I’m no great reader but the governor’s hall contained a library of almost a hundred books, and in Ellinburg that was a treasure indeed. I had resolved to read them all, although I’ll allow that my progress was slow. This one was a treatise on mercantile law, and I understood little of it, but to my mind a city governor should know such things.
I was working my way painfully through a section on the finer points of the rates and levies of the import duty on tea when Salo entered the room and uttered a polite cough.
The house I had shared with Ailsa off Trader’s Row was closed up, unneeded and unwanted. Exactly how I had been to her, in the end. I had kept the staff on, though, and brought them with me to my new official residence in the governor’s hall. I’d known I wouldn’t have been able to trust any of Hauer’s former servants, and Salo was a good steward.
‘What is it?’ I asked, without looking up from my book.
‘There’s a messenger, sir,’ he told me. ‘A rider just arrived from Dannsburg. The guard have her in the downstairs office and they assure me she knows the correct words of exchange. She says she has come from the Lord Chief Judiciar with an urgent message for you.’
I frowned at that. The Lord Chief Judiciar was Dieter Vogel, of course, and he was also secretly the Provost Marshal of the Queen’s Men.
That made him my boss.
‘Aye, well,’ I said, and closed my book. ‘I’ll see her in my study, then.’
Salo gave me a short bow and left the room, and I got to my feet with a sigh. Any urgent message from the house of law was unlikely to be a good thing. I refilled my glass from a bottle on the side table and took it with me, leaving Billy and Mina to each other’s arms. I don’t think they even noticed me leave.
* * *
The woman was thin and dirty and she looked tired half to death, and those things told me she had seen hard riding on the road.
She was grimy of face and her clothes were nondescript, a stained cloak over a coat and britches that any rider might have worn. The Queen’s Men have no uniform, no insignia or badges of rank. We are invisible and officially non-existent, and those who work for us could be anyone – bakers or soldiers or chandlers, farriers or fishwives or whores.
Only a very few carry the Queen’s Warrant, people like Ailsa and Iagin.
People like me.
I wondered if this one even knew who she truly worked for. Many of those who serve us don’t even realise it, after all.